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Traveling a familiar road.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Eugene and Lane County would be traveling a familiar path if they reach agreement on a proposed deal for the city to underwrite county services in return for county road fund money for city streets.

In the 1980s, Lane County and the cities of Eugene and Springfield worked out a package of similar agreements, known as "urban transition," that still remain in effect. The cities agreed to take over county roads within their jurisdictions in exchange for a share of county road funds. Other agreements called for the cities to take over urban parks (Eugene and Springfield, for example, assumed ownership of Alton Baker Park) from the county, while the county took over regional parks from the cities. In a realignment of planning and permit services, the county shifted authority for unincorporated land within urban growth boundaries to the cities.

The arrangement made sense from both an organizational and budgetary perspective. Local governments were being squeezed by a recession at the time, and in the case of the county, cutbacks in logging on federal land had reduced federal timber payments.

Those urban transition agreements exceeded in scope the current deal being negotiated by Eugene and Lane County. But the underlying goal remains the same: preserving government services through a creative and mutually beneficial reallocation of resources.

The catalyst for the new proposal is the county's budget crisis. Unless Congress approves a last--minute extension of the Secure Rural Schools Act, the county will lose $47 million in federal timber funding for the coming year. In anticipation of that loss, the county plans to cut about 12 percent of its work force by July 1 and to dramatically reduce services to all county residents.

Eugene officials are justifiably alarmed. Eugene Police Chief Robert Lehner warns of a "public safety catastrophe" if the county proceeds with planned cuts in corrections, prosecutions, treatment and prevention, and animal services.

At a meeting this week, city and county officials reached tentative agreement on an exchange that could ease the impact of the county's budget cuts and help the city partially address its growing road maintenance backlog.

Under the deal, Eugene would provide up to $1.5 million from its general fund for county public safety and other services. In exchange, the county would give the city $1.5 million from the county's road fund for city streets.

This exchange looks like a wash, but it's not - legal restrictions limit how local governments can spend their money. The county can spend money from its road fund only on street maintenance and construction. Even though the fund has substantial reserves, the county can't tap it to pay for public safety and other services. In return for giving the money to Eugene to spend on city roads, the county would receive an equivalent amount of city general fund money that could legally be spent on a broad range of county services. The city also may give the county another $1.3 million for public safety and human services.

Complications could derail this promising arrangement. Some Eugene City Council members oppose giving the county city funds that would pay for services to citizens outside Eugene. They might oppose a deal that does not require that county services paid for with city tax dollars be used exclusively to meet city needs. For example, they might want to require that an assistant district attorney whose salary is underwritten by the city handle only Eugene-related cases.

Such restrictions could pose problems for the county. Residents of communities such as Springfield and Veneta might question whether a two-tier public safety system violates equal protection guarantees. County officials might balk at such limitations, especially when they would be handing over county road funds, intended for the benefit of all county citizens, to the city to fix roads that primarily serve Eugene residents.

Before making such demands, City Council members should consider that the city's population - and the high demand it already puts on county services - ensures the city would be the primary beneficiary in any unrestricted exchange of funds.

City officials also should remember that the level of public safety across all of Lane County affects the level of public safety in the city of Eugene. Bad guys travel, and Eugene, no matter how much it spends on its own public safety, never will be an impregnable fortress.

Hopefully, these and other difficult issues will be resolved quickly, and Lane County and Eugene soon will complete a deal that preserves dearly needed county services - and that serves as a model for other cities across the county.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; A city-county deal would help preserve services
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 16, 2008
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